For Responders, Vehicle Technology Provides a Vital Link in the Field

As anyone who has been awed by the sight of a roaring fire engine can attest, emergency response vehicles are built for high speed and higher visibility. In a nation where almost 90 percent of qualified citizens hold a driver’s license and a cultural love of automobiles runs deep, these traits—while obviously essential for road safety and response times—have granted ambulances, fire trucks, and police cruisers a uniquely iconic status. From fire trucks in community parades to police chases in our favorite movies, the vehicles manage to hold a positive and exciting connotation in the average American’s mind.

Less celebrated are the technologies such vehicles employ, a surprising oversight in a country that also loves its gadgetry. While not as eye-grabbing as a blinking siren or bright red paint job, the improvements under the hood and elsewhere make responder vehicles among the most advanced vehicles on the road. Driving- and safety-focused enhancements that consider the job’s unique needs are designed to help occupants arrive quickly, drive safely, and execute effectively upon arrival.

In fact, responder vehicles have doubled and redoubled their overall capability of late, capitalizing on the fast pace of innovation to put forth a collection of tools, technologies, and features that would have been flat-out impossible even five years ago. This is particularly good news for agencies undergoing a long-awaited vehicular upgrade, with features illustrating the value their purchases can provide.

Beyond the radio: Mobile communications bridge gaps between agencies, field-based agents

Emergency vehicles are not the only products to undergo a technological renaissance in recent years. It has only been a decade since the first smartphones arrived on the market, for instance, but the capability gap between your first smartphone and the one you carry now likely feels more than ten years deep. Communications systems in agency vehicles exhibit a similar level of sophistication, in forms and formats that best benefit the roles of the personnel using them.

In some cases, the upgrade may be as simple as installing a specially provisioned and equipped smart device within the vehicle. Ambulances provide an interesting example of this point. Rural systems and others that frequently encounter long distances between the emergency site and a primary point of care can utilize the technology as an included feature or standalone upgrade to hasten the visual contact between patient and physician. This approach effectively takes the “telehealth” care model that has proliferated across rural America and makes it viable in a mobile context, with all the care benefits that entails. The rapid advancement of wireless networking technology is a key development for this, considering the deep need for clear aural and visual communication in a care setting.

Compare this now to the communicative needs of fire services, a group of agencies that render their primary service outside the vehicle. Fire grounds are often loud, chaotic places, the noise of which can affect the safety and performance of responders. The wireless headsets that teams—particular those comprising two people—rely on have undergone a series of improvements, with the truck or engine they ride to the scene serving as a bridge between the units via magnetic, installable antennae.

Utilized in combination with long-range, in-vehicle communication tools such as CB radios, the near-universal presence of these headsets in fire stations is a testament to their value. In a two-person wildland truck, for example, being able to hear and be heard at hundreds of feet despite the aural clutter allows members to engage in a continual and critical back-and-forth that saves lives and preserves property. Accordingly, upgrades to the technology over the years feature on range (up to 1200 feet in optimal conditions, but closer to 300 in a cluttered fire site), clarity of communication, and refined ease of use. More than most other emergency scenes, stopping to calibrate a radio to get better connection or volume could have disastrous consequences in the midst of a fire.

On the road: Usability, handling, and other concerns

Other emergency vehicle innovations have little to do with the scene and everything to do with getting there. The responder vehicles we share the road with enjoy the usual engineering benefits of a modern vehicle on top of purpose-chosen features. Law enforcement pursuit vehicles, for instance, can handle sustained periods of abuse similar-sized cars would struggle to withstand. Their high-performance engines—usually a V6, to preserve fuel efficiency—come outfitted with enhanced cooling systems; their seats come equipped with grooves to handle the presence of belt-mounted holsters, preventing wear-and-tear on the upholstery. Their alternators, built to handle the abnormal collection of power-chewing features, can push up to twice as many amps as a consumer vehicle.

Emergencies hold little regard for operational needs, yet the best vehicles compensate via handling and maneuverability. While not strictly new (indeed, the industry has deployed them in some fashion for centuries), fire service organizations have shown a substantial revamped interest in so-called “tiller trucks,” or tractor-drawn aerials (TDAs), since the early 2010s. Agencies willing to shoulder the immense length and specialized training requirements tillers pose get a vehicle better suited to the logistical realities of modern driving, enabling response in tight-driving and -parking situations—a potential nightmare encompassing everything from traffic circles and parking lots to narrow roads and cramped office parks—other fire service vehicles would struggle to negotiate.

On-task: Supporting critical services

In some instances, an emergency vehicle’s role is dedicated to transport and little else. In others, they are an active contributor to a call’s success. In emergency services, handling the latter requires a flexibility that can account for the huge variability personnel see from call to call and, accordingly, the endless list of services they provide.

As the only providers whose primary services occur en route, emergency service providers exemplify this challenge. Designed to facilitate lifesaving stabilization and communication, the boxy white ambulances they drive from egress to scene to hospital have increasingly benefitted from improved interoperability regulations, enabling seamless communications between dispatch, hospitals, and the vehicles themselves.

Unlike the telehealth services mentioned earlier, seamlessness is the operative term for these features. Built by different, often competing companies, medical computer systems are famously disagreeable—if not, regulations to make them communicate would not be necessary. In practical terms, this means a device that takes patient health data from the ambulance might only work for one health system, and not interface with dispatch whatsoever. In this regard, added interoperability in ambulances increases communication by reducing human communication. When the same device automatically tells the waiting physician a patient’s heart rate, staff who would otherwise need to handle the task are free to manage matters that are more pressing.

The organizational structures supporting fire and law enforcement are simpler in the sense that personnel generally report to a single point. This does not reduce the need for (or incidence of) technological improvement in their respective vehicles on-scene.

Here, the difference lies largely in the approach. Though it would be inaccurate to say the fire service does not rely on innovative new vehicle technologies—Microsoft’s cloud-powered improvements, which feed important mission data to relevant personnel in real-time, offer an early look at features that will soon be standard—their personnel have also used variations on the same tools for hundreds of years. Thus, refinement is largely the name of the game: improved rubber blends that make for more durable, flexible hoses, for example.

Law enforcement personnel, meanwhile, primarily deal with people, a baseline difference that creates unique challenges and requires a different technological philosophy. An officer might drive a car outfitted with Type IV bulletproof door panels, an advancement that puts cruiser doors on the level of high-end body protection. The low-priority calls they take, meanwhile, may come to the vehicle via “silent dispatch” technology, reducing the individual officer’s need for verbal communication and saving the airwaves for more important emergencies. Wireless technologies the officer relies on in the field may connect via built-in 4G gateway capability, giving the vehicle impact that extends well beyond driving and basic communication. Historically, this mix of innovation (such as purpose-built technologies) and adaption (as with 4G gateways, applying general technologies to a law enforcement context) has always been present in law enforcement agencies—today’s tools are just more useful than they have ever been.

Conclusion: Inside or out, vehicles are a public safety lynchpin

Naturally, advancements on this level do not come without costs. An emergency response vehicle may cost anywhere from the high tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on agency, features, purpose, and other background factors. Outfitting existing cars with new tools can be every bit as expensive. The Cleveland agency deploying “silent dispatch” technology in the above article spent some $9,000 per vehicle, for one example. While the pace of advancement is exciting in its own right, harnessing it can come with its share of anxiety: spending time and effort petitioning for the funds to buy a fleet upgrade now, or waiting for the pending arrival of a greater selection of self-driving automobiles.

Even with these concerns, however, the tools available suggest emergency response vehicles have found a way to bring together the best aspects of modern technologies. In terms of sheer capability, there has never been a better time to be a technology fan inside a modern first response agency—especially if your role includes time behind the wheel of these incredible machines.

Posted on Feb 27, 2019